At age 35, John Wood left the world of business, a decision he chronicled in Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. Now he has written a sequel titled Creating Room to Read.
One cannot help but admire Wood’s obvious determination to combat illiteracy in underdeveloped nations in Asia and Africa.
While vacationing in Nepal in 1998, Wood visited a primary school that had a library but virtually no books. Back home he launched a book drive for the school, an experience that led to the creation of Room to Read.
The non-profit offers challenge grants to communities in nine poor nations to build schools and stock school libraries. Initially the program provided only English language picture books, but it now reaches out to local authors and illustrators to produce books in native languages.
Books in any language do not do much good if students cannot read, so the program also emphasizes literacy, writing skills and teacher training. Wood describes the crippling, long-term toll of illiteracy. Poor nations know they will remain poor without schools and books, yet they often lack the resources to provide quality education.
Children in remote regions walk long distances to get to school and will do anything to hold a book in their hands. Because teachers in Africa may have no books or blackboards, they scratch words in dry dirt with a stick, as students gather around. One young black man in South Africa was so eager to read that he walked house to house in white neighborhoods after dark, looking through trash barrels for discarded books and magazines.
Room to Read brings hope for a brighter future to millions of children in villages in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia.
The cumulative numbers are impressive: more than 1,600 schools, 15,000 libraries, 12 million books and an annual budget close to $50 million. Because girls tend to drop out of school earlier than boys for economic and cultural reasons, an ancillary goal is to provide financial support to ensure that girls can continue their education through high school and beyond.
Wood grew up in a home surrounded by books. He would pedal his bicycle three miles to the local library and check out a backpack full of books, which helps explain his robust enthusiasm for the cause of literacy.
Although Wood’s energy and devotion to a worthy cause are admirable, the book suffers from the author’s huge ego, his frequent use of clichés and his long-winded description of administrative details.
According to Wood, Room to Read is one of the “most award-winning charities of the last decade.” He also boasts, “I’m told that I’m a great public speaker.” The book contains pages of color photographs, many of them showing Wood posing with one celebrity or another.
His frequent use of clichés becomes tiring: “worked our butts off,” phones “ringing off the hook” and “reinvent the wheel.” The constant use of stale phrases saps the energy from a good book. Where were his editors?
Too much of the text deals with organizational or business decisions that detract from the main theme. Wood devotes pages to his disappointment when two major contributors backed out, which could have been summed up in one paragraph. None of this is to say that Room to Read is an unworthy program.
The best parts of the book, though, involve stories of children desperate to read and their sense of accomplishment when they are given a chance. Surely Wood deserves plaudits for his decision to leave a safe, lucrative job and devote himself to spreading the gospel of worldwide literacy — a cause dear to the heart of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates who, strangely, barely gets a mention in this book.
Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy, by John Wood; Viking, 290 pp.; $27.95
Bill Williams is a free-lance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.